April 1, 1957
Dan Hodge knew he was whipped. Icy water flooded through the broken windows of the battered Volkswagen station wagon in which, on the night of March 15, 1976, he'd fallen asleep at the wheel, allowing the car to veer off a bridge into a Louisiana creek. The VW sank into nine feet of water, quickly encasing Hodge as if in a coffin. Searing pain crackled through his neck, and his mouth was a bloody mess of broken teeth. There he sat, having never been taken to the mat from a standing position as a collegiate wrestler, now pinned and helpless. What a lousy way to go, he thought.
"I heard a voice say, 'Hold your neck,' " Hodge, 67, recalls. "It was a guardian angel, snapping me out of my fog." Hodge did as he was told and also managed, with his free hand, to pull himself through a broken window. After Hodge had risen to the surface and struggled to the creek's bank, a passing trucker radioed for help and he was rushed to a nearby hospital. There doctors fused a portion of his hip to the base of his broken neck. That he survived, he was told, was nothing short of a miracle.
It wasn't the first time Hodge had faced adversity and survived. By the time he was 10, his home had been razed by fire and his mother, Hazel, severely burned; his father, Bill, had left the family; and Dan had been sent to live with a physically abusive grandfather. Then he stumbled upon a wrestling practice in his hometown of Perry, Okla., and found an escape that became a lifelong passion. Ten years later he ended his career at Oklahoma with a 46-0 record, including 36 wins by pin, a preposterous percentage. After graduation, while working as a mud engineer for an oil company, his boss suggested he try boxing. Within six months Hodge found himself in Madison Square Garden, winning the 1958 Golden Gloves national heavyweight championship. He then turned to pro wrestling, a career he intended to pursue until age 50. That plan was curtailed by the car accident and the arduous recuperation that followed.
Hodge returned to Perry, where he managed an all-night truck stop, owned and operated a nightclub, and settled into home life with his wife, Dolores, now 65. They have three children and nine grandchildren. Still a local hero, Dan enjoys dispensing advice to the Perry High wrestlers who often visit his house. If the visitor is lucky, the advice comes with hands-on tutoring from Hodge, even though such a lesson could easily leave Hodge paralyzed. "I don't care," he says dismissively, a fresh carpet burn still stinging his left elbow. "If I can go doing something I love, then send me to heaven right now."